"To keep up appearances. To keep up order," Asher says. "My father tried to free his slaves. And look what that got him. We must be careful. Even your small act of compassion has consequences. Look at the other slaves." He points at two men rowing the barge near the back. They scowl at the girls who now lounge in chairs across from them. From time to time, they glare at me. "They will resent the girls now, and resent you for showing them preferential treatment."
I bow my head. "This whole thing is ridiculous. You're right, but you shouldn't be. I'll be more careful. But there has to be a way to help some without making the situation worse for all."
He scoffs. "When you figure that out, let me know."
"I suppose it's what we're working toward, you and I. It's why we will unite the—"
The boat shakes beneath our feet. I drop my plate and cup, and they shatter on the deck, staining it red. The slaves look around, confused, but not yet scared.
"We hit something," Asher says, standing.
Two guards, clad in silver and purple armor, look over the side of the boat. Yami flaps his wings and flies around my shoulders, screeching. It's the first time he has stayed airborne so long. I try to calm him without drawing attention to myself. I realize I have to be more careful. The Fae know I have a dragon, even if they can't see it. But here, no one can know about Yami. It would mean danger for us both.
The wind picks up, blowing my hair in my face. It escalates, growing into such a crescendo of force that loose chairs and tables are thrown from the boat. Waves rise around us.
"What's happening?" I ask, peering over the edge, but seeing nothing but dark blue water.
Asher looks around, but his eyes are distant. "I have seen this before. Long ago." His voice is soft, barely a whisper. "Wadu."
The boat shakes.
A shriek fills the air.
I grab onto the side of the barge to keep myself from falling. Something. Something in the water. A grey snake. It slithers up from the canal. No. Not a snake. There are no eyes. No mouth. It is a tentacle. Swaying in the wind. Its movements slow, graceful, hypnotic.
It lunges forward.
I duck out of the way.
The tentacle hits one of the guards. It twists around his torso and shoots back into the water, pulling him into the deep.
The slaves grab weapons, oars, cutlery, anything they can find. I draw Spero, my sword, and hold it in a defensive guard. Yami clings to my neck, shaking. From behind his chair, Asher raises a blade of black steel, a thing greater than I can carry. A purple stone glitters in the pommel. "Arianna," he says. "Get to safety."
I stand my ground.
"You cannot fight this enemy."
A woman—a vampire—runs to the side of the boat. She is fast, ready to jump.
I scream at her. "Don't touch the water!"
She touches the waves.
And a giant silver claw erupts from the depths, piercing her entire body. It pushes her upward, where we can all see her bloody corpse, and then pulls her down into the canal.
No one else runs to the edge of the boat.
"To the center of the boat!" Asher yells. "To the center." The slaves do as he commands. Asher and his remaining guard join them. I follow. "Stay together," he says. "Do not—"
The ship shakes again.
I fall to my knees.
A tentacle flies over the deck, grabbing wildly, blindly. It clutches a man, the rower, the slave who scowled at me. Kara and Julian grab his hands, keeping the tentacle from pulling him to the depths.
But the tentacle tightens, and the man begins to choke. His face turns purple.
I rush forward and strike, slicing the tentacle in half with my blade.
The man falls back onto the deck, coughing uncontrollably.
More tentacles begin to rise at the edge of the boat. These are larger, thicker than a man. They will destroy this barge.
"Get off the boat," I yell. "All you who are Fae, go into the water!"
The man, who is no longer coughing, looks at me, confused. "But you said—"
"You're Fae," I say. "She's not after you. Once you're in the water, she'll see you. She'll recognize you and keep you safe. On the boat you're a target like us. Go!"
The man nods. "If you think so, Princess." He jumps into the water.
A moment passes.
A moment when I pray I do not see his bloody corpse float to the surface. A moment when I steel myself for what will happen next.
His head pops up through the waves, and he swims toward shore. I sigh, and laugh madly, my knees buckling under me. I was right. Wadu will not harm Fae knowingly. The man in the water is all the proof the other slaves need. They dive after him.
Kara and Julian do not join them. "We stay with you, Princess," Kara says.
The others slaves reach the shore. None appear harmed.
"Go," I say. "I'll be fine."
Julian nods, grabbing Kara and pulling her to the side of the boat. They jump into the water.
Something hits me from behind.
I fall to the deck, the air springing from my lungs. A tentacle, cold and slimy, wraps around me. The Water Druid will not care that I am Fae. She sees me as the enemy. As the one who will destroy her people by making deals with demons.
The tentacle yanks me to the head of the boat, my ribs crushed under the weight of the thick serpent. I stab at it with Spero, but my arm is weak. The air feels thin. I do little harm. Yami bites at the tentacle. His attempts do nothing.